The City of Calgary has stated in the Municipal Plan a goal to accommodate half the anticipated increase in its citywide population in its already developed neighbourhoods by 2020. Further the City aims to double the population of inner-city communities over the next 40 years accommodating increased growth where there is better infrastructure efficiency, as contrasted to the idea of unsustainable suburban sprawl. This inevitably means that established inner city neighbourhoods will need to become much more dense to meet the City’s stated goals. So how can we accommodate this need for growth and change without losing the village feel, the historic foundation and the “character” of our community?
One way to achieve these things may be laneway housing or backyard suites. Laneway houses are self-contained living spaces consisting of a bedroom, a bathroom and a kitchen located within or on the same property as a single-family home (in technical terms this means there are two “dwelling units” on the same lot). Generally laneway houses are accessed from the back alley of the property with the alley or lane acting as the “street” to the dwelling, hence the name “laneway house”.
Bridgeland-Riverside is already zoned R-C2 (Residential – Contextual One/Two Dwelling District). This means our neighbourhood is already zoned to accommodate such backyard suites (laneway homes) as an approved discretionary use. Discretionary use applications are subject to extensive review by the City’s development authority and the Community Association is circulated on these applications for comment on each one. As a CA, we want you to know that we are seeing more and more applications for laneway homes in Bridgeland-Riverside, especially in the area north of First Avenue up to the escarpment. Still, many lots in Bridgeland-Riverside do not qualify for laneway houses because they are too narrow (more info at lub.calgary.ca Division 8 - 479).
Laneway housing has been widely adopted (to great acclaim) in many cities including Vancouver and Seattle. They increase the affordability/housing options of inner-city living while adding sensitive density within the existing feel of the established neighbourhood.
Benefits of laneway housing are considered to be many as they can allow for people to downsize while remaining within their own neighbourhoods, create more affordable rental spaces, they can encourage preservation of heritage homes or can allow families to keep relatives close by. Further these homes can provide income for homeowners looking for a “mortgage helper” in the form of a renter but while maintaining their own private space. Laneway homes add animation to alleyways and back properties improving safety and enhancing livability for the entire community.
The BRCA has undertaken a fair bit of engagement about laneway housing in response to development permit applications in our community and feedback to date has been very positive. In general people seem to like the “small town feel” and also that laneway houses can connect well to the historic built form of the neighbourhood (two small houses on one lot rather than one new larger structure) while at the same time offering new housing alternatives. Laneway housing can maintain the existing streetscape feel while nevertheless adding more people to the neighborhood by contributing “invisible density”. It can activate and improve the safety of alleyways by contributing so called “eyes on the lane” and by beautifying underused lanes with outdoor livable spaces adjacent to the rear of homes and by creating secondary pathways through the community.
Since laneway housing is relatively new to Calgary there are some “growing pains” being experienced. Currently the City’s bylaw seems to encourage the “box on top of a box” product that is perhaps a less favourable design outcome. One of the factors preventing truly exemplary backyard suites here is a typical requirement for double parking to support a laneway house, which effectively demands a two-car garage below with living space (at a premium) above. Allowing more flexibility and creativity in design will get us to a better end product. Other obstacles to flexible design concern roof heights.
What sorts of flexible rules may be allowed in the future? One example would be flexible parking regulations such as rules to allow “car share spaces” or other rules permitting zero parking for certain sizes of laneway houses. These changes could then allow for main floor living space in a laneway home, which would help make the laneway home feel more like a traditional home on a true street and improve accessibility. Such changes would permit less massive designs in general, room to have peaked roofs and creative architecture (more of a backyard cottage style). Rules to permit over height peaked roofs would similarly help with space management and also encourage more creative architecture.
The City is currently working on a laneway housing strategy to trying to address some of the deficiencies of the current bylaw with an eye towards better design and outcomes. However Laneway houses alone will not relieve all of the pressure for growth and the City is working on other housing forms as well (e.g. rowhouse zoning, etc.) to add more of what they call “the missing middle”. More to come on this in upcoming articles!
As always we want to hear from you! Do you like laneway housing? Is it a fit for Bridgeland-Riverside? Would you be amenable to less stringent parking requirements for smaller laneway houses? We can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on laneway housing/ secondary suites please go to Calgary.ca/secondarysuites or Calgary.ca/PDA/pd/Pages/Laneway. Also interested people can look to Studio North (a Calgary Company) or to Smallworks or Lanefab out of Vancouver to get some ideas as to what can be done with creative laneway designs.